This three-part series explores issues relating to the major branches of the U.S. Military—including the Navy, Army and Air Force—and exposure to asbestos, a highly toxic carcinogen that causes illnesses like asbestosis, mesothelioma and other types of cancer. In PART ONE, we give a brief overview of how each branch faced potential exposure, as well as a description of the illness itself.
Mesothelioma and Veterans: An Overview
Malignant mesothelioma is an especially rare and particularly deadly kind of cancer that is caused primarily by exposure to asbestos. It affects the mesothelium—a thin, film-like lining that covers particular vital organs. Mesothelioma can affect the heart, stomach and most commonly, the lungs. It is considered an incurable and therefore terminal illness, with most victims living only six months to two years after being diagnosed.
Mesothelioma appears in veterans after they come into contact with disintegrated asbestos products and inhale or ingest tiny fibers, which then become embedded in the mesothelium and cause significant damage and scarring. Over a period of anywhere from ten to 50 years, those undetected asbestos fibers lead to the development of malignant tumors and mesothelioma.
Asbestos in the Army
Prior to the 1970s, when the military issued a ban on the use of asbestos-containing products, many of the buildings on U.S. Army bases—including housing for soldiers and their families— were routinely constructed with materials made from asbestos. Ceiling and flooring tiles, cement, wall insulation and exterior siding were all likely to contain asbestos. Additionally, tanks and other army vehicles contained numerous asbestos-made products—in particular, brakes, brake linings and gaskets. For this reason, army mechanics were at an especially increased risk, due to the nature of brake repair work, which generally occurred in enclosed and poorly ventilated spaces.
Asbestos in the Navy
The closest and most pervasive connection between mesothelioma and veterans occurred within the navy branch. Navy vets, in particular, account for as many as 30 percent of all mesothelioma victims diagnosed annually. Asbestos on navy ships could be found in virtually every part of the vessel—including sleeping quarters, kitchens and mess halls. The navy used more asbestos-containing products than any other branch of the military, even mandating their almost exclusive usage during the peak shipbuilding years between World War II and the Korean Conflict.
Asbestos in the Air Force
Another connection between mesothelioma and veterans occurred within the Air Force. Asbestos materials were found in air forces bases, as well as in jets and radar stations. This fact was confirmed in 2002 when the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published a study conducted at one major air force base, revealing the presence of asbestos in several portions of on-base buildings. The highest concentrations of asbestos were found in wall insulation, as well as tiles used to construct both ceilings and floors. Additionally, asbestos traces were found in drywall, vinyl flooring and stucco facades.